Eight years and two days ago, the course of NFL history changed. History has since been revised. Thank you, Morris C. Lewis.
It was the Hit Heard 'Round the World. Down 10-3 to the New York Jets with five minutes remaining, the New England Patriots faced 3rd and 10 from their 18 yard-line. On the ensuing play, Jets' rookie defensive tackle Shaun Ellis interrupted Drew Bledsoe's five-step drop and flushed him out of the pocket. The storied, 100 million-dollar New England quarterback rolled right, loafed 11 yards up the sideline, and was obliterated by Mo Lewis as he scampered out of bounds. Foxboro went silent. Drew's internal organs had never Bled-soe much.
What happened next and unfolded over the remainder of the New England Patriots' 2001 season bears particular relevance to the 2009 Denver Broncos. History may repeat itself, but it does not lie.
Amidst the chaos, Tom Brady '01 checked into the game. Tom Brady '01 should not be confused with Tom Brady '02 or anyone who has ever impregnated both a Hollywood actress and a supermodel.
That countless NFL fans remember Tom Brady '01 as Tom Brady '07 is a problem. This line of thinking revises history.
Tom Brady's career began on the Patriots' 29 yard-line. Brady completed 5 of 10 passes for 46 yards (21 of which came on a single play), ran once for 9 yards, and failed to lead the Patriots to victory. Brady played well that evening. He "managed" the Patriots' offense effectively during the game's final drive. He did not manage to pull out what would later become his trademark: a victory.
Brady continued to "manage" the Patriots' offense for the remainder of the season. His first two starts were not historic performances. Though the Patriots handily beat the Indianapolis Colts in Week 3, Brady only completed 13 of 23 passes (56.5%) and did not throw for a single touchdown. The Colts finished 6-10 in 2001, and did not qualify for the postseason. Brady played an abysmal game the following weekend against the surging Miami Dolphins. The Patriots lost 30-10 in Miami while Brady connected on 12 of 24 (50%) passes for a meager 86 yards and zero touchdowns. Yet, Brady did not turn the ball over in either game, which surely impressed Bill Belichick.
Meanwhile, New Englanders considered Brady a temporary solution. Not even Bledsoe believed Brady was capable of achieving success in the NFL. In an interview with the Boston Herald less than a month after his life-threatening injury, Bledsoe stated, "I feel like I'm going to be the starter for as long as I'm here."
Drew spoke too soon. He became the most expensive clipboard-holder in NFL history faster than I just typed, "Mo Lewis."
Tom Brady "arrived" in Week 5 when Belichick set him loose on the San Diego Chargers. Brady displayed a newfound command of Belichick's playbook during his third NFL start. The sixth-round draft-pick completed 33 of 54 passes (61%), amassing two touchdowns and league-wide respect. His second touchdown pass, a shot to tight-end Jermaine Wiggins, came in the final minute of the game and forced overtime.
The Patriots won 29-26 on a 44-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri. Brady however received the bulk of the credit for the dramatic comeback victory. He engineered a marvelous game-winning drive. Brady identified numerous Charger blitzes, and his audibles led to a string of completions that set up Vinatieri's game-winning kick. His poise and intelligence won the game.
Still, Brady '01 never became Brady '07. He was not even Brady '04-'06: The Bridget Moynahan Years.
In 15 regular season games, Brady '01 interspersed six impressive passing performances (91-pus QB rating) with nine relatively pedestrian outings (sub-79.6 QB rating). Although Brady finished the regular season with a solid 86.5 QB rating, a sine curve best describes his week-by-week performance. He was a wild card, who often played down to his competition. Few recall that Brady threw 10 of his 12 interceptions against non-playoff teams -- Buffalo (2 INTs, 3-13), Carolina (2, 1-15), Denver (4, 8-8), and Cleveland (2, 7-9). Brady's mediocre statistics make the Patriots' first Super Bowl victory seem all the more stupefying.
The Patriots clinched the AFC East by winning 11 of their final 14 regular season games. They did so despite the fact that Brady only threw 18 touchdowns to counter his 12 interceptions during this span of games. This is by far the worst TD-INT ratio he has ever posted. They advanced to Super Bowl XXXVI even though Brady threw more interceptions (1) than touchdowns (0) in the first two rounds of the playoffs. They won the Super Bowl even though the future Mr. Bundchen only threw for one touchdown, 145 yards, and completed fewer than 60% of his passes in the Big Game!
History demonstrates that Brady played effective (not spectacular) football throughout the 2001-2002 season. So, how did the Patriots win consistently with him under center?
The Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI because Brady always played within the confines of Bill Belichick's game plan. Belichick's success started on defense. He paired an aggressive, nameless front seven with a proven secondary (sound familiar, Denver?). He fortified his tough, dedicated defense by running a conservative offense. Belichick did not possess a dominant All-Decade football team. The 2001 Patriots did not lead the League in total offense or defense. The roster did not brim with Pro-Bowl talent. Belichick won because each week he convinced all of his players to execute his game plan.
But what is so special about that? Every winning coach gets the most out of his players.
This is where today's fans contend, "Belichick won in '01 because of The System! His proven 'system' beat everyone!" Ah, of course, the good ol' Patriot Way. Unfortunately, crediting the franchise's incredible run and first Super Bowl victory to The Patriot System ignores and even contradicts history.
Making the playoffs was a pipe dream for the 2001 Patriots. Dr. Z of Sports Illustrated ranked the Bledsoe-backed Patriots twenty-fifth out of thirty-one NFL teams in his 2001 pre-season power rankings. Yet, the imagination of the contemporary fan revises history. The post-'01 dominance of the Patriots organization causes people to believe that the 2001 Patriots were supposed to win 11 of their final 14 games. This perception could not be further from historical fact. Each week, the Patriots were supposed to stop winning. I remember this because I was there.
In 2001, I was attending high school in a suburb of Boston. The Fall of '01 was the most frustrating season of my life. I had no car. I had no privacy. I had no mountains. All the while, "Pats" fans surrounded me. They bore names like O'sull, Walshy, and "insert the nickname of a character in Good Will Hunting and/or Boondocks Saints here." I lived in the Kingdom of the Enemy. Every week, I watched in disgust as the Patriots piled up yet another absurdly lucky victory. Yes, I broke things. Had Ray Bourque not recently jettisoned the Bruins and won a Stanley Cup with the Avalanche, Greater Boston would have eaten me alive. I felt like a caged bird ... a caged bird that despised Tom Brady. The man was ruining my life. Griese was supposed to win and Brady, the backup, was supposed to lose. Bill Belichick had thrown off the natural order of my universe.
No one in Boston spoke of a "system" that would ultimately lead the Patriots to victory, let alone dynastic greatness. There was no saving the 2001 Patriots. With Bledsoe in the ICU, the Patriots were a pastiche of nobodies led by Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, and an unproven, unpopular, second-year head coach. Suffice to say, The System did not rescue the 2001 Patriots. The System had yet to exist.
Revisionist history clouds our judgment. Tom Brady's poor play against subpar opponents in 2001 tends to perplex those who examine his stats today. However, in 2001, few were surprised by Brady's errors. Analysts and fans blamed Brady's mistakes on inexperience and an overall lack of talent; no one expected precision, much less a Super Bowl run, from a sixth-round quarterback with no NFL experience. Brady's improvement since 2001, especially his historic 2007 season, has altered our collective memory. We now expected the Patriots to markedly improve after Bledsoe's brush with death.
Belichick's constant success since 2001 has also blurred NFL history. No one outside of New England recognized "The Patriot Way" until Belichick won Super Bowl XXXVIII. That season the Patriots went 14-2 and won the Super Bowl with a roster that contained only three pro-bowlers -- Ty Law, Willy McGinest, and Richard Seymour. None of these guys played offense. Talk of The System remained quiet until the 2004 Patriots set the NFL record for consecutive regular season victories and went on to win Super Bowl XXXIX.
By February 2004, the Patriots had won 28 regular season games in two seasons and consecutive Super Bowls. Belichick had become a genius in the process. He reached genius-hood in part by strategizing around season-ending injuries to established starting cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole. The coach inserted Asante Samuel (a second-year NFL player, fourth-round draft pick), Randall Gay (a rookie undrafted free agent), and Troy Brown (an aging wide receiver) into the New England secondary. His creative gamble paid off. As the Patriots hoisted the Lombardi Trophy for the third time in four years, people came to believe that Bill Belichick could annually compete for a championship with a roster of antique chairs.
The franchise remained hungry and obsessively organized.
The New England System came of age in 2007, and it withstood the test of time (and injury) in 2008. Josh McDaniels played a major role in bolstering and preserving The System between 2006 and 2008; he had worked for the Patriots since 2001. McDaniels came of age while watching and actively helping Belichick change NFL history. Josh McDaniels is the Forrest Gump of the last decade of NFL football.
Pat Bowlen hired McDaniels for his work during the 2008 season. Yes, 2007 was an historic year in New England. But any team that starts eight Pro-Bowlers, including 3 of 5 offensive linemen, has a chance to re-write history. That is not to say that the '07 Patriots were not impressive. They were arguably the best team ever assembled. Yet, their talent at every position made it more difficult to discern the impact the coaching staff had on each game.
Bowlen believes that McDaniels stopped the bleeding in 2008. Colorado hopes Bowlen is right, but only time will tell if Matt Cassel owes McDaniels a sixty-third of his new $63 million contract. Cassell will most likely have to pay up. McDaniels belongs at the helms of an NFL offense. Cassell does not, unless McDaniels is calling his plays.
Speculating that McDaniels is attempting to re-build the 2001 Patriots roster position-by-position in Denver oversimplifies his occupation. Nevertheless, the chain of events that unfolded in New England between 2001 and 2007 offers hope to the Denver Broncos.
The 2001 Patriots and the 2009 Broncos are strikingly similar teams. In a strange twist of fate, Sports Illustrated ranked the Broncos 26 out of 32 before Week 1 kicked off. More importantly, McDaniels is currently working with the same level of unproven talent and low expectations that Bill Belichick coached to victory in 2001.
Like the 2001 Patriots, the success of the 2009 Broncos starts with an anonymous yet voracious defense. Denver also lost its franchise quarterback. The plot thickens as a 6'4" unproven signal caller replaces a Pro-Bowl pocket passer. Additionally, the problem child formerly known as Brandon Marshall is the '09 version of Terry Glenn. Glenn, a former Pro-Bowl wideout and a general nuisance, was in his prime when Belichick suspended him indefinitely in 2001 for his off-field transgressions. The franchise never offered Glenn a Super Bowl ring, and traded him to Green Bay before the 2002 season for two fourth-round draft picks. Say, didn't numerous teams low-ball the Broncos during the pre-season by offering third and fourth-round picks in exchange for Marshall? The list goes on, and the resemblance will grow stronger each time the Broncos win in 2009.
Sports icons are predicated on revisionist history. Revising history produces glory. Take revisionist history with a grain of salt, but also be sure to learn from it. Retracing each step an historic athlete took to become a legend sheds light on both the past and the present. Always keep in mind that Tom Brady '01 was not Tom Brady '07.
Kyle Orton will never be Tom Brady '07. McDaniels of all people knows this. Orton however does not have to be Tom Brady '07 for this team of Broncos to win games. Put your faith in the defense and coach McDaniels. He will do whatever it takes to win. This is the only method that McDaniels knows. He stuck with Cassell in '08, passing on a more proven player in Chris Simms. His controversial decision paid off. The Patriots won 11 games, McDaniels received a head-coaching gig, and Cassell won the lottery. Stick to a successful method and you just might end up with a productive system. Just ask Bill Belichick ... or his trusty sidekick, Josh McDaniels, who saw it all since '01.
Do not allow the glitz of the present to re-color the past. Remember history as it actually unfolded. Forget the legend of Tom Brady '01. Brady was not a legend when he won his first Super Bowl, and he certainly did not play like one. Live in the present by remaining patient with the '09 Broncos, especially on offense. Judge the Broncos for what they currently are: a 2-0 underdog led by a clever, competitive coach with everything to prove.
Eight years later in a town called Denver, the true story of Tom Brady '01 endures.